South Dakota Top Blogs

News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A commandment for bloggers

"Everyone thinks their opinion matters. Don't argue with a nobody. A farmer doesn't bother telling a pig his breath smells like shit."

From Shit My Dad Says

Invasion of the Frankenstein bug

Western corn rootworm in its larval stage
Super bug in its adult stage

The super bug, bane of Monsanto, has invaded.  It was found and definitely identified by an Iowa State University researcher* in four corn fields in northern Iowa.    The fields were plant with Monsanto Bt corn, which was genetically modified to specifically resist any attacks from this insect's larva.  Corn rootworm is one of the most serious pests of corn.  The western corn rootworm is the species in question.

This insect has developed through high speed evolution.  Monsanto Bt corn was modified with a gene that produces a natural insecticide in the corn that kills the pests which feed on it.  Scientists discovered a bacteria that produces a crystalline protein called Cry3Bb1This protein kills bugs which eat it.  They were able to extract the gene which produces this protein from the bacteria and introduce into the corn plant as part of its genetic code.  Bt corn implanted with this gene eliminates the need to use insecticides on corn because the corn plant carries its own insecticide in the seed.  

Monsanto's work in genetic modification has produced many instances of how weeds and insects can quickly evolve to develop a resistance to the substances that once killed them.  

The western corn rootworm, in the findings of the Iowa State scientists, has developed that resistance to the implanted insecticide.  And so it has resumed its munching on the roots of corn plants.  Even the ones designed to kill it.  

Monsanto has also found that weeds have the ability to foil its plans to kill them with Roundup.  Roundup is the widely used herbicide that kills all the vegetation it comes into contact with, except crop plants that are specially modified to resist the deadly effects of Roundup.  Weeds, when left to their own devices, develop the same resistance that the scientists implant into the crop seeds.

So, this year more than 11 million acres are infested with Roundup-resistant weeds, according to  Penn State University weed expert David Mortensen.  Some farmers have gone back to the old agricultural practice of manually or mechanically going after the weeds that try to crowd out their crops.  

The western corn rootworm has shown a real talent for frustrating attempts to control it.  It showed this talent in developing a resistance to the very toxic insecticides once sprayed on crops to kill it.  Then agronomists warned farmers not to plant the same crops in succeeding years but to rotate them so the rootworm would not have concentrated opportunities to develop its resistance.  However, when farmers rested a field by planting another crop with it, the corn rootworms changed their breeding schedule and rested until the insecticides were applied again, when it resumed its development of resistance.  

Monsanto scientists thought they were developing reliable crops that could withstand those things that theaten, not that they were also developing Frankenstein bugs and weeds that could come back to plague them.  But that is how nature works.

Farmers were warned, also, not to plant Monsanto Bt corn in succeeding years so that pesty critters could not have so much opportunity to develop resistance to the insecticide implanted in it.  But the high demand for corn for food and fuel made the prices high and farmers disregarded the advice to space out their plantings.  The profit motive wins out and helps the bugs recreate themselves into monster insects.  

Industrial farms are getting so huge that their operators find it necessary to go for the dollars to pay off their debts, not go for the prudent cropping plans that more carefully manage the perennial battle against pests.  

As for Monsanto, its competitors are quick to offer alternative seeds and chemicals to the ones being defeated by the corn rootworm.  And the organic farmers are doubling down on their cropping methods.

Meanwhile, rootworms are nestling down for another season of tasty corn roots.  Mother Nature does take care of her own. 

*Gassmann, A. J.,  Petzold, J. L., Keweshan, R. S., and Dunbar, M. W.  2011.  Field-evolved resistance to Bt maize by western corn rootworm. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The struggles for renewable, redeemable, and redumbable energy

The attempt to move America off dependency on petroleum, and therefore on foreign suppliers who are not terribly friendly to the American way of life, is stalled. Not because there are no viable alternatives to the burning of carbon-based fuels, but because of political loyalties and postures and dedication to causes. A significant number of people would rather put on demonstrations of screwing the pooch in public than actually ridding the U.S. of its dependencies and the polluting effects of old energy.

Many people on the right are chortling with glee over the stalled creation of green energy jobs. When one reads over the punditry on energy, one must confront the fact that the right has moved to a position where it swears more obeisance and loyalty to the global oil companies than it does to the nation of the U.S.A. This affinity for big oil became particularly pronounced a year ago during the BP Gulf oil spew. When the Obama administration announced its determination to hold BP financially accountable for stopping the oil leak, cleaning up the mess, and compensating the people whose livelihoods it destroyed, the GOP immediately screamed that the administration was making a communist-like intrusion and takeover of a private industry. For the party that is constantly harping on private citizens being responsible for what they do with their lives, and regards corporations as persons, it is very tolerant and permissive about what corporations do to other people's lives and livelihoods. It applies quite a different, worshipful standard to corporations.

The lack of growth of jobs in the renewable energy field stems from the same conditions that affect the creation of jobs in other industries. The manufacture of solar panels illustrates the problems. At this time, the U.S. exports about $2 billion more in solar panels than it imports. Since 2010, it has increased its exports 100 percent. The U.S. has developed the technology of solar panels, but it finds it difficult to compete with the Chinese and Pacific nations that move in on the manufacturing sector. A German-owned manufacturer of solar panels has had to close down some plants in the U.S and has announced the closure of one in Tuscon because it can't compete with China.

There is one factor about the renewable energy business that is not given sufficient significance in what is happening with the American economy. Many of the companies in the business in the U.S. are foreign companies. They came to take advantage of the developing technology, but take the actual manufacturing of equipment out of the country where the labor is cheaper. The two large wind farms near Aberdeen are foreign owned. Tatanka located north of Aberdeen is Spanish-owned and the Wessington Springs Wind Project is Australian-owned. Existing American energy companies give some tepid lip service to renewable energy, but they put their developmental and lobbying efforts into keeping America tied to their gas and petroleum and coal-fueled electricity. The foreign orientation of the renewable energy companies and the resistance to renewable energy by the established American energy companies are the reason renewable energy jobs are not being created in America.

The right in America dismisses renewable energy as a passing fad that has no practical possibility. They cite the spectacle of wind generators strewn over the landscape and huge solar panel farms taking up acres and acres and land to produce limited amounts of energy subject to the whims of wind and clouds. They dismiss the fact that these sources are supplying increasing amounts of energy, that devices for storing energy are being developed, and that foreign and developing nations are pushing hard to develop renewable sources.

China not only produces solar panels that are among the cheapest on the world market, but it is also one of the biggest users. However, in addition to solar energy, China has multiple projects for creating other forms of clean, renewable energy. One of those projects is the introduction of biogas generators in its remote rural regions which have had to heat and cook on wood fires. The biogas generator is a comparatively simple concrete tank into which animal wastes are put and allowed to decay and generate gas which is run into the homes through plastic tubes. Rather than start a wood fire and deal with smoke and ashes, the people simply light their gas burners and cook away, and find the improvement a huge contribution to their lives.

However, in distributing and providing subsidies for building these biomass generators, the Chinese are utilizing a principle that was operative in the building of America's successful agriculture. Rather than making huge central power plants from which energy is distributed, they are making the biogas units part of individual homesteads, in effect making the rural homesteads energy independent.

The development of American agriculture was built on an operative principle of energy independence. Farms typically had wood lots. The fuel for heating home and supplying farm labor was homegrown. Farmers feared any conveniences that would make them dependent on businesses. When electricity did become available, it was hard to convince farmers to electrify more than their milking barns, where turning on a light switch at pre-dawn milking time was indisputably superior to fooling around with kerosene lanterns.  Giving up their independence and self-sufficiency was to give up those things that made farm life secure.  Whatever economic upturns and downturns came, farm families worked to heat and feed themselves.  Consolidation of farming through vertical and horizontal integration with corporate dependencies has changed farming so much that independence and self-sufficiency are long forgotten goals of rural life.

Private residences are powered by solar photo-voltaic panels.
In providing energy for American homes the concept of self-sufficiency is still operative to some degree.  Some farms have their own wind generators and plans are developed to store energy in the from of hydrogen which can fuel on-farm generators and drive farm machinery and vehicles.  Individual homes can be powered through on-roof solar panels.

The replacement of old planet-devastating, atmosphere-damaging energy with a renewable, clean energy was never to conceived to come about by developing a source that would have the monolithic hold on the economy that oil does.  It was conceived as the development of many, complementary sources that would be vested in local and regional production facilities.  Such a shift requires leadership and coordination.  In many other countries the necessary leadership and coordination and support is in evidence.  China keeps emerging as an innovator in the field.  America lags far behind.  The American right wing puts up a stiff resistance to any attempts to make the conversion to renewable, clean, affordable energy, largely  because they think it is a liberal cause. The Internet abounds with examples of grossly false portrayals of the progressive thinking on energy.  The right is perfectly satisfied to let corporations rule the world.

While America has been extremely respectful and careful not to permit drilling for oil that threatens harm to the planet, the oil companies and the right wing advocate wholesale exploitation with little regard to its effects on the environment and the food supply.  Unable to drill at will in the American-controlled arctic, Exxon Mobil has just closed a deal with Russia to develop the arctic oil fields controlled by that country.  Such developments show clearly that corporations have little interest in the countries they are aligned with except for the purposes of exploitation.  And it shows just as clearly that they have no interest in plans to wean the country off of oil and replace it with clean, renewable sources.

There won't be many jobs in green energy in America, but the arctic oil fields controlled by Russia will see quite an employment boost.  Environmentalists are accused by the right of opposing any energy development and desiring restrictions that prevent energy development.  Other countries, including China, think that development of oil fields should be undertaken as very short-term measures to make the transition from oil to renewable energy.  And they also see that they have to offer support and coordination to make that transition possible.

Meanwhile, America which has developed most of the technology that develops and utilizes green energy lets other countries appropriate it, while America drills, builds new pipelines, removes regulations, and opens up more parts of the world to the kind of disaster that we experienced with BP in the Gulf.

The right wing likes to berate Obama for confronting American mistakes and they blame him for pushing America into second-rate nation status.  Meanwhile other countries leap ahead by developing clean, affordable energy and expending efforts to get control of the messes created by the old forms of energy.

Exxon Mobil has allied itself with one of the most corrupt systems of exploitation and control in the world.  That is where the American right want to take us.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The New World drunk and disorderly rules

Colorado State University students make stupor a ritual

This year has marked the emergence of the social media as a force throughout the world.  The Arab Spring was promoted and coordinated through the use of cell phones and Internet social pages.  This became a particularly notable element in the uprising in Egypt.  It was a major factor during the riots in  Great Britain this summer.  It has been cited by authorities in Philadelphia and Milwaukee as the device used in creating the "flash mobs" that rioted in their communities.  

This past weekend, Colorado State University students at Ft. Collins orchestrated a "flash party" through the social media.  The Denver Post reports that between 2,000 and 4,000  people gathered at a place near the campus for an alcohol-fueled party on Saturday afternoon that soon got out of control.  The party has become something of a tradition at CSU, but this time reports show that four were arrested and 16 young people were treated for alcohol poisoning.

Imbibing has long been a university tradition.  Martin Luther, as a student, was said to own a beer mug that had the Ten Commandments on it and could chug-a-lug through all ten.  However, until recent years, collegiate drinking has had some standards of circumspection attached to it.  When I was an undergraduate, students tippled for conviviality and high spirits, but it was stigma to show the more adverse effects of alcohol.  Drinking to the point of drunkenness was not tolerated and made one a social undesirable.  

During my tenure as a professor, some very bad things happened, including sexual encounters that resulted in criminal charges of students,  the deaths of a number of students, and some incidents that were simply grossly stupid and degrading.  The excessive use of alcohol was the common element in all these incidents.  

As the culture moves into an age of advanced technology, we are again reminded that not all innovation works for the improvement of humankind.  Perhaps the new technologies reveal much more about the weaknesses of our education systems than do all the standardized tests.  There seems to be a widespread lack of critical thinking and direction among the young, especially in regard to their own lives.  One gets the very powerful indication that there is not much we have created in the world that they have to  look forward to.   Maybe it's time for we elders to have a flash drunk.  It might reveal some of the realities faced by the young.  

Our futures are short, but maybe we might contemplate what the prospects would be if we were college age students again.  Or is that too bleak to confront? 

And then came Whitey

On July 23, 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the Black Hills was fraudulently and violently taken from the Lakota people and awarded them $105 million in compensation.  The majority opinion stated, "A more ripe and rank case of dishonest dealings may never be found in our history."

However, the Lakota people were never after compensation.  They wanted their land back.

A recent PBS Newshour story covers the progress the Lakota people are making toward that end.   South Dakota newspapers also report that progress on occasion. 

In 1868, they negotiated a treaty at Fort Laramie which gave them full possession of what is now West River South Dakota.  They also reserved the right to hunt to feed their people on the surrounding lands in North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska.  The treaty gave them full possession and use of the Black Hills.  


Then, in 1876, following the Battle at the Little Bighorn which wiped out Gen. Custer and his troops, an agreement was imposed taking the Black Hills away from the Lakota people.  This agreement was one of the acts that the Supreme Court found fraudulent.

With the statehood of South Dakota, the governing powers decided they wanted to further limit Indian possession of the  land and to make the more productive lands available for white settlement.  The Great Sioux Reservation was altered and was reduced to nine separate, much smaller parcels in the state. 


The government decided it could control the Indians by herding them onto small reservations, which were conceived as concentration camps, on the poorest land in South Dakota where they could be kept in submission by holding them in a state of dependency.  Ostensibly, the government encouraged them to try agriculture.  Some, like Sitting Bull, made an earnest effort to farm the land, but he and the white farmers who tried farming the land on Standing Rock experienced a series of crop failures and concluded that the land was unsuitable for that kind of agriculture. 

The land which was expropriated from from the Lakota was put up for sale and settlement by the government.  The courts have established the face that the land was illegally taken.  The Lakota people have spurned the offer of money in compensation and have insisted on the return of the land to them, at least in part.  What the white people cannot grasp is that the spiritual precepts of the Lakota and other Indian people is written in the Black Hills.  Taking the Black Hills from them is tantamount to what confiscating and burning all the Bibles would be to white Americans.  

As the Sioux tribes struggle to negotiate an agreement among them for returning the federally-held lands in the Black Hills to them, they have some encouragement in that for the first time since the taking of the Hills, they have a government administration that has vowed to consider their request.  

The hardest part for whites to accept is that their taking of the Lakota lands was an act of fraud, of  genocidal violence, of soul-corrupting dishonesty.  The Lakota have endured the wrongful taking and possession of their land and have lived with it.  The question now at issue is whether the white population can live with any sense of integrity on land that is not theirs, or if the return of part of the Black Hills to the Lakota can provide them with some expiation for participating in a crime against the Lakota.  

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Huntsman is an anomaly

He actually knows stuff. 
Of all the potential GOP candidates who have hovered around the primary gate,  Jon Huntsman stands out because of an unusual trait.  He actually knows something.  He was appointed ambassador to China by President Obama, which might be considered a near-endorsement, he speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese, and he keeps saying things that reflect some functional brain cells working.

One of the things he said was that the U.S dialogue with China needs to be done at the senior head-of-state level, and not left at the bureaucratic level, where Huntsman's office claims it is "too bureaucratic, too irregular, and ineffective."  And it may be Huntsman's influence as ambassador to China that has resulted in President Obama meeting with China's President Hu Jintao eight times since he took office.  The idea in Huntsman's comments may be argued with, but argued from the standpoint of what is the most effective way to build and maintain a relationship with China, not from the standpoint of the tiresome, doggedly stupid hacking points that make up what passes for political dialogue over the Internet and the broadcast networks.  

Huntsman's wariness about investing too much trust in bureaucratic agencies indicates that he knows about bureaucracies.  Whether bureaucracies are government agencies or corporate agencies, they are severely impaired because of the rivalries they inspire and sustain, because of the suck-buddy hierarchies they form, because of the stolid stupidity that nearly always triumphs over perspicacity, and because they are the creation of the fucking dumb.  In popular fiction, be it books or films, the typical hero is the cop, or physician, or reporter, or ordinary citizen who runs counter to and circumvents the bureaucracies that that try to control them.   Of all the GOP candidates, Huntsman is the one who departs from the partisan cant and shows the tendency to look at original facts.  And one of those facts is the emergence of China into being a power in the world that is equal to the U.S. and has the capacity to surpass it.  To most Americans, China is lost in the mist of American jingoism with its Joe McCarthy-era hysteria over communism and Asian ethnicity.  Somewhat sentient Americans are aware that almost everything we buy, aside from some foodstuffs, is made in China and that China holds a good portion of the American debt.  They aren't quite sure what to make of that, other than that America seems vulnerable to the gigantic population of China that is emerging as a economic and political power which is gaining an undeniable prominence in world affairs.  And some of the more sentient seem aware that the Chinese are not particularly impressed or concerned with guns and bibles.  Or what is alleged to be the rhetoric of American politics.

Mao Zedong (I am so damned old I remember when we spelled his name Mao Tse-tung) did say, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun."  However, that came out of his Little Red Book of political cant, which provided slogans and epigrams for the uneducated and the naive to recite.  He also said, "Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party."  That is one of those principles that is reflected in the Second Amendment, but seems too communistic for good Americans to consider. 

Mao had a vision of changing China from a mass of underprivileged people who were struggling to survive a tradition of slave-like existence with a relentless history of deprivation under a feudal caste system to a modern state that elevated the masses.  His concept of revolution was that  “We should take over the rich legacy and good traditions that have
been handed down from the past ages in China and foreign countries, but the aim must still be to serve the masses of the people.”  But there is no doubt that Mao embraced brutal, totalitarian methods to bring about the changes in mindset and social attitude needed to accomplish his revolution.  China has progressed beyond the stark facts of revolutionary tactic.  Now it must consider another part of the Maoist agenda: 
"We must unite with the proletariat of all the capitalist countries, with the proletariat of Japan, Britain, the United States, Germany, Italy and all other capitalist countries, before it is possible to overthrow imperialism, to liberate our nation and people, and to liberate the other nations and peoples of the world. This is our internationalism, the internationalism with which we oppose both narrow nationalism and narrow patriotism."

The current regime in China is building on the energies of Mao's revolution, but also sees that for China to be a force in world affairs it must recognize some facts of co-existence, and that there are defects in the traditional Marxist agenda that interfere with positive relationships with the established industrial nations and the emerging nations.  Here is where Huntsman has a huge edge among any candidates of either party who wants to deal with America's economic circumstances.  He knows the language extremely well, which means he has some understanding of the political aspirations of contemporary China. His experience is in matters of trade.    He has a perspective on the way that the Chinese and American economies intertwine that needs to be examined and discussed in terms of how the two countries can share a more prosperous future.

The American economy has stalled.  The Republicans do not want to talk about why, assuming that they even know why.  The Democrats mention the reasons for the stall at times, but seem to fear being regarded as too pessimistic if they face the reasons squarely.  The economy began its stall in the  1980s when the official policy was to get American workers out of manufacturing production and into  service jobs.  And that change has occurred.  China has absorbed a huge portion of America's manufacturing work.  The struggle to get out of the recession is geared toward getting Americans to spend more on goods.  The hitch is that when Americans spend more on goods with their service industry salaries, they are buying stuff made in China.  And so, the more we spend, the more jobs we create for China.  And the American production sector puts along with no primary production increases in our domestic market.  Huntsman knows China, which means that he knows how China's ambitions impinge on America's economic status.

American conservatives are more interested in defeating liberalism than they are coming to terms with China as an economic force.  They share an ideological dislike of liberalism with Mao Zedong, who said,

Liberalism is extremely harmful in a revolutionary collective. It is a corrosive which eats away unity, undermines cohesion, causes apathy and creates dissension. It robs the revolutionary ranks of compact organization and strict discipline, prevents policies from being carried through and alienates the Party organizations from the masses which the Party leads. It is an extremely bad tendency.
Those contentious liberals screw up the plans of Chinese Marxists and American Conservatives alike.  But the followers of Mao at least did as much as they could to provide jobs for the masses;  American conservatives want the masses to show their proper obeisance to plutocratic authority.   Huntsman knows China and can, perhaps, help America understand it and come to terms with it ways that do not require the shutting down of American engines of production.  

Huntsman's reserved and quiet caution stands in stark contrast to the other GOP contenders, such as Palin, Bachman, and Perry.  Their inane pronouncements lurch often into sheer insanity.  Mitt Romney is totally fixed on his what-does-that-nigger-think-he's-doing-in-the-White-House? tactic which offers nothing but disparagement of the President.  With Huntsman, we have some one with whom a rational, respectful discussion is possible.

And  he is the one the Democrats need to talk with.  It can only elevate the discourse of both parties.  And maybe raise some real solutions to our worsening economic and political problems.  We need real discourse, not petty partisan cant. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Discouraged? Head for the Hills? University in session.

The agenda is set by nature.

Tending the coffee pot among the fragrant ponderosas. 
 A bunch of old academics sit in the early morning sun as it rises over a peak in the Black Hills sipping coffee from a pot of Gevalia on an old Coleman camp stove.  The Hills this year are green and sparkling.  We remember a time when we gathered here and they were, indeed, the blackened hills.  A fire had swept over them and left the earth black with a few charred skeletons of trees jutting up from the earth.  Today, dark logs from that event are visible scattered on the mountainside, but juvenile and adolescent ponderosa pines are greening up the mountainsides and spruce seedlings are stretching up through grass in places.  We speak briefly of the power of renewal, careful not to slip into any smarmy banalities.  At one time we used this forest as the setting for institutes to provide teachers with the knowledge and skills needed to encourage and improve writing at all levels of education from kindergarten through graduate school.

We don't dwell on those sessions.  Too many of our colleagues are dead or struggling through the halls of assisted living facilities with wheel chairs and walkers.  They may be out of the reach of the power of the Hills, and recalling the clean scent of pines in the  clear air would be an impertinence to those surrounded by the reek of piss and Pinesol.  

For those of us who remain and can trek to the Hills, there is still work to be done, resources of knowledge to be developed, information to be tested and evaluated.  The mountains and the forest, however, assert two inescapable facts that we cannot ignore: 

1.  If the preservation and development of the Black Hills were proposed today, there would be no state or national parks or national forest.  Any attempt at preservation would be labeled as big government driven by liberal ideology, and the Hills would be the property of private interests.

2.  Unlike the sweep of forest fires or the creep of mountain pine beetles that periodically blacken the mountains and the forest, the political mood that pervades and stultifies America is an invasive  species that withers and kills human aspiration with a deadly toxicity.

Much on our  minds is a  colleague who was so taken with the Hills that nine years before his retirement, he bought a place that he worked on whenever he could to create a work studio where he could spend his retirement years in the beauty of the area continuing his work.  A year after his retirement, he listed the property with a realtor and moved much farther west where his daughter and so-in-law live.  He told close friends that the physical environment was despoiled by a resentful and hateful culture of the people.  He said that a routine trip to the grocery store was a spirit-killing experience because of the political and cultural attitudes one was certain to encounter.  The social climate;, he said, had a deleterious effect on the work he hoped to accomplish.  So, as we sit an read and talk, we are aware that the spirit of Paha Sapa is threatened by a mindset that would like to destroy it.  The Hills have become a reminder of a different time, not a refuge from the insidious forces that martial in the name of politics.

It is not a matter of conservative versus liberal ideologies.  The old professors represent a range of political preferences.  But now, as in previous times, their attention and energy is focused on the common task of maintaining, refining, and transmitting knowledge.  Our identities were not connected with any partisan group.  We engaged in the task presented to us by our profession, and we did not entertain any partisan notions about what our tasks were in carrying out the mandates of our profession.

We still agree on basic concepts of responsible intelligence.  We all agree that a few years back if some said some of the things uttered by Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, or Rick Perry, the educated populace would very quickly dismiss them as intellectually unqualified to hold public office.  This is not a partisan group; it is a group that worked during a time when intellectual integrity and competence were required of public figures who posed as  leaders.  Charlatans were exposed and eliminated from leadership.  Folks tend to forget that that is the process at work in Watergate.   Errors of fact and reasoning were  not considered just differences of belief and opinion.  So, we come to the Hills to reclaim a lost heritage and to consider if we need to come out of retirement and find some way to work at re-establishing learning and knowledge as valuable enterprises. 

Sometimes change is retrograde.  It herds the uninformed and uncritical back to ways that America has fought and worked to  transcend.  It plunges the unwary back into the mindless sound and fury of reptilian behavior.    The media, traditional and new, has made the inanity of what we once termed "tavern talk" the discourse level of the nation.  It drums away and conditions people to accepting counterfeit discourse as the business of the nation.  Gresham's Law on money applies to communication:  bad (counterfeit) money drives out the good.  And so, we come to the Hills to see if there is any good at work and where.

As old professors, we see many talented and capable young people who  cannot find jobs that use their educations or engage their intellects at any level.  A young woman, a granddaughter of one of our participants, holds an impressive degree and just finished a temporary job in the east.  Now she will head for Europe to see if  she can't find work commensurate with her education and experience.  A professor of engineering is in a rage over a book whose author he heard interviewed on a national talk radio program.  The author claims that if immigration barriers were relaxed, he could bring thousands of young engineers in from India and Europe and China and put them to work in America.  He claims that American students are not trained with the "skill sets" needed in the contemporary economy.  The old professor says that contention is totally false and incomprehensible.   He says American universities can supply job-ready engineers for any enterprise in America.  America is not in the manufacturing business anymore, he says, and such enterprises have moved offshore to the cheap labor markets.  An agricultural economist says that a problem is that global corporations only interest is their own autonomy and they have no interest at all in contributing to the national economy.  For them, the corporations are their nations, and they run them with the form of governance that suits their ends, not serves any people.

A political scientist bemoans his profession.  He says that political science has little that is scientific in its purview today.  He said the profession at one time addressed the basic facts of the nation and examined where they fit into the political schemes of things.  Today, he claims, political scientists want to practice as pundits, using their professions as the pretext for spreading their partisan viewpoints.   We used to examine what the facts were, but now the facts are contrived, distorted, and withheld to fit the political agendas being sold.

A former dean claims that the university system that was created from the Land Grant College Act and the G.I. Bill has been dismantled.  He cites as evidence the fact that college presidents once were lead scholars.  Now they spurn their academic credentials and are almost totally engaged in fundraising and creating corporate alliances.  He dourly cites the example of SDSU, and its affiliation with Monsanto through executive sharing.  He says at one time you made a choice between academic life and corporate life.  The two areas are mutually exclusive and one often works in contradiction to the other.

A point of agreement is that public universities have undergone politicization and no longer serve the mission they did in building the country through the Land Grant College Act and the G.I. Bill.  They are not intellectually independent, but have redesigned themselves to be training departments for corporate entities that are displacing nations as the primary social and political institutions.  The problem is that universities are being run as businesses, not as universities in which learning and the processes of creating, refining, and transmitting knowledge are considered valuable activities to be engaged in.

So, what can a bunch of old professors do about it all?  First, face the fact that government is not the problem; the politics that consumes and undermines government is.  Secondly, face the fact that true education is an underground activity in today's social climate.  Old professors hold the accredited degrees and the knowledge of what collegial truly means.  And they understand that the future of the nation resides in the integrity of knowledge possessed by the young.

The faculty convened under the trees in the Hills this year.  Those old faculty may hold the last best hope for the aspiring young.  A freedom from politics as it is being practiced seems the only way to go forward.  As it is, we are stepping backward into a politics of ignorance, avarice, and oppression. 
Nature sets the curriculum.
Young bucks always kind of saunter to class. 


Sunday, August 14, 2011

The death of the Great Lakes

You could buy a fast and easy-to-cook whitefish for 35 cents. 

 I went to Chicago to find work. There was no trouble finding work, but it paid so poorly that it defeated the purpose for finding it, which was to save money to go to college.  If you were a resident of Chicago who lived with one's parents, saving for college expenses was possible.  But the majority of us who lived in Chicago at the time came from the surrounding rural states, which were in a recession at the time, and we found that the jobs we were able to get left us scrambling to pay rent and buy food.  

We did what came naturally to anyone from farm country.  We gathered together, pooled our resources, and coordinated our efforts to survive.  Healthy eating was a major part of this.  We got together and made big pots of spaghetti sauce and pasta, stews, pot roasts, and the like.  A couple of guys would find some cheap cuts of meat to contribute, others of us would bring the vegetables, and others bread and condiments.  

A favorite dinner we made was whitefish.  At nights, I was taking classes on the Chicago campus of Northwestern University, which is in a neighborhood just north of the Chicago River and at the side of Lake Michigan.  At that time the area near the river contained warehouses where lake freighters loaded and unloaded, and out of which a small fleet of fishing boats operated.  I  was often designated to take 35 to 50 cents to a fish market where the boats were unloaded and buy a big whitefish.  If we cleaned and scaled it ourselves, we could get a bigger fish, and some of my friends who came from the lake areas were very fast and adept at getting a whitefish ready to cook.  And there were innumerable ways to cook them, but the mother of a friend who was a native of Chicago showed us the easiest and maybe the tastiest way, which was simply to bake the fish,  sometimes stuffed, sometimes not.  At any rate, one big whitefish could feed a lot of hungry young men.  Very cheaply.

In the spring, when fishermen gathered at the lake front for the smelt run, we were often given buckets of the little fish.  Preparing them was more labor intensive, and we had to have a smelt cleaning party before dipping them in milk and cornmeal and frying them, but they were very  cheap and quite tasty.  We developed a lot of strategies to eat despite the limitations of a lack of money.

People venerate the foods that have helped them survive and get along.  African-Americans revere their chitlings and greens.  Scandinavians celebrate the Christmas holidays with ritual servings of lye-cured cod,  lutefisk  if you're Norwegian, lutfisk  if  you're Swedish in descent. That is how whitefish and smelts hold a special place in my dietary memory.  I have found fresh whitefish available only once while I lived in Aberdeen, and that was last week. As for smelts, they are available but spouse finds it incredible that I will eat bait fish.   

The days of eating from the Great Lakes fishery are over.  Fishing in Lake Michigan is ending.  The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel carries a story today about the last fishing boat leaving Milwaukee.  The fishing industry has been killed by invasive species.

For a long time, white fish became very rare because they were devastated by the parasitic lamprey eel.  It took decades of work by environmental and fishery scientists to find a way to control the pests, but now the fish are being starved out.  Mussles have propagated so wildly that they literally cover the entire bottom of Lake Michigan and suck all the nutrients out of the water that fish and their natural food sources depend upon for survival.  The lake used to be green from being rich in plankton.  Today the water is crystal clear.  

The death of the fishery is one of the hazards of globalism.  Freighters coming in from the oceans have carried invasive species with them.

The invasive species have also invaded the river system.  Biologists have reported that Asian carp have made their way up the Mississippi River and are now progressing up the tributaries, where they also devastate the foods sources that native species depend upon.  

However, fishery killing stuff is being generated within our own country, also.  Nitrates from the commercial fertilizer used in industrial farming operations have rushed down the Mississippi to create a huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico in which nothing much can grow.  And that is not to exclude the contributions of organic pollutants that contribute to the contamination of the waterways.  The Gulf fisheries were dealt a huge blow by the BP oil spill, during which time the dead zone has seen a dramatic increase in size and toxicity that is closing off fishing grounds that were once productive.  

Along the East Coast, much fishing has been curtailed from overfishing and other environmental problems that have still to be fully understood.

Dietary recommendations coming from food scientists say that we should be eating fish about three times a week.  Fish?  What fish?

Friday, August 12, 2011

As goes London, so goes Wisconsin: the messages

To get a full perspective on what happened in the Wisconsin recall elections, you must follow the money.   In the election to recall six GOP senators, four Republicans retained their seats while two lost.  This was largely seen in the news media as a blow to organized labor.  It was clearly a blow to workers, whether members of organized unions or not.  

The six election contests pulled an incredible amount of money into the state for this state senatorial contest:  near to $30 million.  Money for the Democratic candidates  came heavily from organized labor; for the Republicans it came from conservative PACs, funded by corporate interests such as the Koch brothers.  At first take, with the 4 to 2 dominance of the Republicans, it would seem that the corporate money won. 

Counterpoint to the money is some other events.  When Gov. Walker opened the State Fair last week, he could barely finish reading his opening statement because of the shouts and taunts of protestors.  And then, a group of young people turned the Fair into a riotous rampage.  The governor ordered out the state troopers and the Fair officials imposed a curfew refusing admission to anyone 18 or under after 5 p.m. unless accompanied by an adult of at least 21.
Wisconsin state police patrol the State Fair 

One might find it a coincidence that young people are rioting in Britain at the same time they are in West Allis, Wis.  Like most experienced observers and analysts of human events, I don't believe in coincidence.  Similar effects generally  come from similar causes.

In both the West Allis and Tottenham incidents, race and social discrimination were underlying factors.  And we have probably seen just the beginning.  Another sign of the undercurrents at work was the killing of two police officers in Rapid City last week.

Current events recall another time of turbulence and my connections to Wisconsin. It was during the late 1960s and early 70s.  I had a place in Wisconsin where I retreated to work and practice one of my avocations:  silviculture, the science and practice of forestry in respect to human interaction with forests.  The land was depleted sand land along the Wisconsin River that was being reclaimed through forestry.  I had some acres where I could alternate work on those interminable student papers which are an English professors lot, do my personal research and writing,  interspersed with interludes with shovel, chain saw, and lopping shears.  (And days of hand spreading tree fertilizer to help the sandy soil support tree growth.)  The trees were all red and white pines, working toward a time when the forest became mature enough to support some mixed hardwoods. 

It was a time of violence and great unrest with inner city riots, the Symbionese Liberation Army robbing banks and taking hostages, the Red Army Faction terrorizing Europe, the American Indian Movement occupying government and college buildings and taking over Wounded Knee. The pine forest was a nice place to escape the petty, often nasty politics of academic departments and the rages of students in response to the Viet Nam War, civil rights struggles, and bourgeois America in general.  However, one August morning the rumble from a truck bomb blowing up the mathematics building at the University of Wisconsin rolled over the pine lands.  The perpetrators had developed their explosive skills by blowing up remote microwave towers in the county where the pine forest was centered. 

I knew a number of people who lived in that region of Wisconsin, which was less than an hour's drive from Madison.  Like me, they were former workers in the field of journalism and communications who now held academic and managerial jobs.  Some of us formed a loose alliance of associates that took on moonlighting projects in communications production and consulting as a means to earn some extra money and to keep our hands active in producing direct communications.  One of my colleagues, a film maker and polling analyst, and I were acquainted through contract work we had done on occasion for a government information agency.  We were approached about being part of a project to collect and analyze propaganda and other communications from the radical groups that were operating throughout the country.  The purpose was to subject any documents and statements that were collected to a critical examination using all the known methods of critical analysis of communications.  The point was to find out everything that could be learned about the groups, their members, and their purpose and intentions.  Many of the people in our moonlighting group had advanced training and experience in communication theory and textual criticism.  When we agreed to participate, we joined a team that comprised most of the disciplines involved in communication research:  rhetorical analysts,  language content analysts,  literary analysts, linguists, psycholinguists, social psychologists and sociologists,  and specialists, like my close colleague, in graphic analysis.  The idea was to draw what conclusions we could from any messages from the radical groups and to assemble rubrics, procedures and protocols for performing an exhaustive analysis.  A number of groups like this were being assembled throughout the country, and were a measure that had produced some effective results during World War II and the Cold War.

The pine forest was the place we chose to gather and do our work.  It was a quiet, very beautiful place to do such work.  I recall sitting around in lawn chairs in the light that filtered  through the canopy of pine boughs overhead, perusing manuscripts and  conferring about what we were finding through our particular approaches to  analysis.  We would write individual reports, some of us clacking away on portable typewriters, others scribbling away on yellow legal pads, others dictating into tape recorders.  When weather or mosquitoes made us seek refuge inside, we gathered in window-walled A-frame cabin that gave a full landscape view of the surrounding forest trees.  In town a few miles away, there were transcribers who would type our various reports on IBM typewriters and make copies on the rather cumbersome  photocopy processes available back then.
I remember that time with a certain nostalgia.  The work was intense and and urgent, which is why the atmosphere of the pine forest facilitated it.  And it was organized but informal.  When we needed to rest our eyes and brains, we could go for long walks through the forest and observe the wildlife.   We felt there was an importance in the contributions that we could make from our various disciplines, and there was a sense of purposeful accomplishment.  We were able to identify characteristics of the messages and statements, some of which came from people who had been arrested and interrogated, that could separate groups that engaged in violence from groups that were merely registering protests.  And we were able to define what circumstances would push some people into acting out with violence and cruelty.  We could also identify individual personalities and complete rather extensive personality profiles of them.

An essential part of this kind of analysis is to examine what kind of messages the people in these groups are receiving from government officials, community leaders, and society at large.  What are they being told and how are they interpreting it?  

The riots in London and throughout Britain demonstrate some of the circumstances we noted.  They began when people gathered outside a police station in Tottenham to protest what they thought was the wrongful shooting of a young man by the police.  That peaceful protest turned into violence with destruction of property, pillaging, arson, and looting.  The world had recently witnessed peaceful massive demonstrations such as that which occurred in Egypt and Madison, Wis.  We had also witnessed riots in Greece when the government began to impose some austerity measures.  But that demonstration in Tottenham quickly turned violent and repetitive, and it spread to other cities. There are a number of elements in the current social unrest that deserve remark.

When the events of the Arab Spring focused on Egypt, a peculiar circumstance emerged.  The demonstration was not violent, except when some factions allied with the government being protested responded with some violent acts.  But the demonstration could not be pushed into violence.  The reason was that it was being guided by its organizers who used cell phones and the social media to keep the demonstrators focused.  The messages they were receiving appeared to work.  They were steadfast in their demand that President Mubarak step down and they assented to allowing the military to form an interim government.  However, since that time democratic rule seems to be something those in charge are circumventing.  A strong anti-American propaganda campaign has been mounted.  The message that the demonstrators are receiving is that cooperation with the military was not a good choice, if advancing a democratic regime was their ultimate goal.  If the demonstrators are dissatisfied with Egypt's direction, the question will be if they will avoid violence in pursuing their goal. 

In Tottenham, the residents were receiving quite a different message.  When a gangster-type, Mark Duggan, was shot and killed by police after allegedly drawing a gun on them, the people of the community got the message that the divisions between them and the establishment had become a war.  Initially, they gathered in front of the police station to confront authorities with what they thought was an unjustified shooting.  When other elements joined them, the nature of the demonstration quickly changed.  And as in Egypt, cell phones and social media were employed by the agitators.  They coordinated their activities to avoid direct confrontation with the police as much as possible.  They used misdirection, as a principle.  They would attract police and firemen to one location by setting a car on fire while they concentrated their pillaging and looting activity in another place.  They tracked police activities with social media messages.  And they spread the revolt throughout Britain with their electronic messaging.  But what they were sending and receiving by mobile phone was a mere adjunct to the main message upon which they were operating.

Initially, the riots started with a racial issue.  As they spread, race became less evident and the British news media have noted that those arrested for looting have included university students, military personnel, youth workers, as well as members of the underclass that is bearing the large brunt of the austerity program in Britain.  The British press has characterized the looting as a "shoppers' riot," noting that it has focused not on police stations and government buildings, but on retail stores.  Washington Post correspondent Jonathan Freedland says, "If today’s looters have a political point to make, it is that politics doesn’t matter."

The riots and looting are centered, however, in neighborhoods that are particularly targeted by the budget cuts.   New York Times correspondents note that "In London, austerity means that there will be about 19 percent less to spend next year on government programs, and the burden will fall particularly on the poor. "  Among the services and resources being curtailed are drop-in centers for young people, other community services, like health centers for the elderly and libraries, and police forces are being cut.  The unemployment rate in the rebellious neighborhoods is at 20 percent.

To understand the messages sent from the rioting protesters, it is necessary to understand the messages they are responding to.  The neighborhoods being affected contain large numbers of emigrants who came to Britain looking for work, a situation reflected throughout much of Europe.   As there is in the U.S., there is a conservative animosity against the immigrant groups which has taken the form of hostile, defamatory allegations against them.  The message the neighborhoods of the underclass are receiving is not hard to interpret.  The verbal denigrations express an attitude directed toward them with an unrelenting unemployment rate and then the cut of services.  The message they are getting is that they don't count, and when it comes to the general welfare of the nation, they are despised and expendable.  They are not considered part of the nation, and there is no recourse for them in terms of jobs or public support.  The work ethic is broken because there is no work, and any trust has been broken by the denigrating words and the cutting of any legal means of survival.  And so, they riot, feeling no sense of obligation or community with those who have designated them undesirable and unwanted, made them outcasts.   

With a message like that, what are the alternatives?  One might move, if there were any place to go.  (That's how America was founded; it was a place to go.)  Or one can resort to any means of survival that is at hand.  In Tottenham, some teenagers broke into a McDonald's and cooked themselves a meal.  The British prime minister has made pronouncements against the criminality and vowed to fight back.  What does that mean to people who have no jobs, no hope, and have already been stigmatized as human offal?  It is important to note that not just immigrants and racial minorities are part of the insurrections taking place.  They include people in general who feel ostracized by their country. 

Put that message in conjunction with the social attitude, and the actions of government in Wisconsin.  And other places, like Philadelphia, that have experienced some uprisings that authorities find inexplicable.  In Wisconsin, the messages of insult and denigration have been extended well into the middle class.  The public workers and their labor unions have been targeted.  The Governor and his minions have taken away their collective bargaining rights, calling the union members greedy, thugs, and designating them enemies to be conquered and eliminated.  This resulted in massive but peaceful protest demonstrations.  The Democrats initiated the recall elections against some of the state senators who endorsed and voted for the pogrom against the unions and the workers, which include teachers and public workers, but significantly did not include police and firefighters.  The message is out there.  The objects of the pogrom have officially been designated as greedy thugs and economic leeches, so the battle lines have been drawn.  The workers have tried peaceful protest and recall elections, but the democratic processes are not working for them.  They, like the looters of England, have had the point driven home for them:  politics doesn't matter.

One of the reasons Wisconsin was progressive in its collective bargaining laws was because of bitter and stultifying labor struggles.  After some massive and economy-stalling strikes, it chose to establish a legal process for bringing people to the bargaining table and having the sides in labor negotiations work out agreements.  That avenue is gone.  Politics does not matter.  So, what is left.  The young blacks rioting at the State Fair have given us an inkling.  And one is reminded that Wisconsin has a history of protest actions that are quite different from what took place in the state capitol late last winter.

Wisconsin is not the only state in which under the guise of fiscal responsibility a pogrom is being carried out against the poor, the middle class, and the work force.  And the U.S. government put on a pageant during the debt talks with messages that cannot be missed.

House speaker John Boehner sent out a booming message that most of white society could not hear, but blacks and other minorities could not miss.  When he reached a point in negotiations with Barack Obama that he decided to break off, he did not give the president the courtesy of a call.  In fact, Obama tried to call him, but was avoided and rebuffed.  Finally, Boehner called him and told him he would no longer negotiate with him.  One colleague who often works on Republican campaigns said, "Oh, no, no.  Do those people have any idea what they have just told African Americans?"  Another colleague of mine who is black sent out e-mail that recorded just what the message was:  he wrote, "The President just got niggered."

What both men were referring to  is a tactic that has been used against blacks when they  venture into territory reserved for white privileges.  They snubbed and treated as if they are not participants but bothersome things to ignore.

Boehner's performance has been reinforced by Mitt Romney, who is basing his run for the president on attacks against Obama.  He is not attacking Obama's policies and decisions, but has launched a full-fledged offensive against the person.  His message is that Obama has been worthless and useless, and what an indignity it has been to have someone like Obama in the White House.  Obama is persistently portrayed from the right as not part of America, as being something other, as being of questionable worthiness.   Obama is being niggered.

People have denigrated Obama because of his experience as a community organizer.  But community organizers know what the messages and their effects are that come into communities.  They know what happens when messages of denigration and oppression meet that segment of their community which operates largely from the reptilian cortex.  What happens is incidents like those with the young blacks at the Wisconsin State Fair.  Obama, even at his sternest, tries to keep the conflict at a low key by not feeding the aggressions of the Cantors, the Boehners, and the McConnells with responses that will encourage more insult and denigration.  However, it is impossible to ignore the fact that these leaders and other loud voices from the Republican side have clearly stated that their main purpose is to take down Barack Obama, even if they have to bring the entire country down to do it.  There is no lack of discussion and repetition of this message, so the entire country has heard it.

Nobody thinks the debt of the nation does not have to be addressed with all aspects of our spending and our revenues to be revised.  But the message coming from the right is that the debt will be resolved only through the total subjugation of the poor and the working middle class.  Corporations, many of which are currently making record profits, and their executives, many of whom are providing themselves with exorbitantly lavish bonuses, are the only ones who count.

The message that is coming through the loudest and the polls indicate the vast majority of Americans have heard  is that politics don't matter.  And when people cannot and will not engage in respectful, constructive discourse, the reptilian cortex starts taking over.

The right wing seems to think for some reason that the working people in Wisconsin should meekly accept their demeaned and powerless status and submit to the voiceless inequality assigned to them without protest.  That kind of submission is not in Wisconsin's history, nor that of the country as a whole.

The working people and those who want to work but cannot find work are being niggered.  Without regard to race or gender, of course.  And there is a part of the stereotypes of the underclass that is being ignored, that of the razor-slashing resistance to subservient  humiliation.   But the riots and burnings and gang attacks and police killings should be a reminder.

And for South Dakotans who feel removed from all this:  remember what happened to two police officers who fell in the line of duty in Rapid City last week.  The messages have penetrated deep into the reptilian cortex, which operates on the flight or fight level.  And some desperate people have no place to go. 

Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States